By Verna Gates

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, once described by Martin Luther King Jr. as the most courageous civil rights fighter in the U.S. South, died on Wednesday at age 89.

Shuttlesworth, who had been in declining health, died at Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham, hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Dodd told Reuters.

A major leader in the civil rights movement, Shuttlesworth was beaten, bombed and set on by fire hoses for his public stances against segregation in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although he and King worked closely together and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Shuttlesworth often bristled against his more contemplative counterpart.

"He was sometimes slow in doing things. Too slow for me," Shuttlesworth said in an interview at age 85. "He'd meditate on things a lot and agonize over them. I think if things need doing, be about them."

Shuttlesworth, who served as pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church and several other churches in Birmingham, began hammering away at that city's hard shell of segregation in the early 1950s.

He formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in May 1956 and urged its members to take a stand against segregated buses. He refused to relent even after his home was bombed on Christmas Day in 1956. He and his family escaped unharmed.

"When he came out covered in rubble, we knew he was anointed to lead the movement," the late Reverend Abraham Woods, a fellow activist, said in a 2007 interview.

Warned by a Klansman police officer to vacate the city, Shuttlesworth said he shot back, "I wasn't saved to run."

'WARRIOR FOR CIVIL RIGHTS'

The minister was later beaten by a mob with baseball bats, chains and brass knuckles as he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school and hospitalized after being sprayed by fire hoses during a demonstration against segregation.

Shuttlesworth once told Reuters he had expected to die by age 40 for his civil rights efforts. He had vowed "to kill segregation or be killed by it."

For his own safety, he left Alabama in 1961 to lead a church in Cincinnati. But he still marshaled forces for change in the South, including helping organize the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

The march ended in a bloody police attack, sparking civil rights protests.

During a commemoration of "Bloody Sunday" in March 2007, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama pushed Shuttlesworth in his wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the attack occurred.

"We have truly lost a great soldier, a warrior for civil rights," Jefferson County Commission President Pro tem Sandra Little Brown said. "I am serving on the back of the changes that he was a part of for people of color."

(Additional reporting by Peggy Gargis and Melinda Dickinson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)


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